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Screenshots of "Memories Can't Wait" publication and photo of William Olander

Let the record show that there are many in the community of art and artists who chose not to be silent in the 1980s. —Bill Olander (1950–1989)

Stitched into the panel of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt that artist Mary Lum created in memory of her friend and mentor Bill Olander are his own words, which seem to hover over the following conversation between David Deitcher and Ted Kerr, recorded on May 4, 2013 at Deitcher’s apartment in Lower Manhattan. Olander—Deitcher’s close friend throughout the 1970s and ’80s—was senior curator at The New Museum of Contemporary Art from 1983 until his death in 1989. He was a cofounder of Visual AIDS, the organization where Kerr works, which supports artists living with HIV, deploys art to provoke dialogue and action, and works to preserve artistic and activist legacies, because AIDS is not over.

Deitcher and Kerr participated in a panel at the ICP-Bard and CCS Bard Symposium, "Memories Can’t Wait". Each of their presentations addressed AIDS, art, and memory in different ways. With the encouragement of symposium coorganizers Malene Dam, Kate Levy and Bridget de Gersigny, Kerr approached Deitcher to record the following conversation about his ongoing book project, tentatively titled "Once More, With Feeling".

Deitcher is an art historian, independent curator, and critic whose books and essays often consider the relationship between art, memory, identity, gender, and sexuality. Kerr is an artist and writer whose work focuses primarily on HIV and queerness.

The excerpt below, the conversation begins with a discussion about the way emotion affects memory, as Deitcher recalls his first encounters with art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. In the full interview, available in the publication, " Memories Can't Wait: Conversation on Accessing History and Archives Through Artistic Practices", the conversation then moves on to address the difference between affect and emotion and their implications, both personal and political.

David Deitcher: For many years I’ve been convinced that the first time I saw Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work was in San Francisco in 1989, where I’d gone to deliver a paper at that year’s College Art Convention. At the recommendation of my friend Hudson, whom I’d met through Bill [Olander] in 1982, I left the convention site to meet Nayland Blake at New Langton Arts, the nonprofit where he then worked as program director. [Since conducting this interview, Hudson, who had been HIV-positive for many years, died of unspecified "natural causes” on February 10, 2014.] This being my first visit to San Francisco, I hoped that Nayland would invite me to join him after work for drinks and/or a meal. He didn’t. But he did suggest that I visit Terrain, an alternative space on nearby Folsom Street, then run by Armando Rascon, to see a group show, Matter/Anti-Matter: Problems with the Model. There I saw three works by Felix that made a lasting impression—two small, framed, black-and-white Photostat dateline pieces, and one wall-mounted photographic transfer (Double Fear, 1988).

Ted Kerr: So it’s not true that this was your first time seeing Felix’s work?

DD: It still feels true, but it can’t be. There’s too much evidence that that lingering impression is more like a dream than a memory. For example, I’d become close friends with Julie Ault during the latter half of the 1980s. A full year before my San Francisco visit, the members of Group Material [then consisting of Julie Ault and Doug Ashford, and eventually Felix and Karen Ramspacher] were immersed in realizing Democracy, an ambitious project for the Dia Art Foundation. That same year, at Bill’s recommendation, Laura Trippi, a curator at the New Museum, saw Felix’s work at the Rastovski Gallery, and then worked closely with him to organize an installation of his art for the Workspace project room at the far west end of the New Museum’s lower Broadway location. Felix’s installation opened on the same evening as Impressario, Paul Taylor’s exhibition about Malcolm McLaren and punk style. I clearly remember attending that raucous opening, and would certainly have climbed the two or three steps to enter the Workspace to check out Felix’s installation—if for no other reason than that I already knew him (slightly), and, knowing myself, would have sought shelter from the manic socializing throughout the rest of the museum. Let’s just say that I looked but did not see—didn’t connect with— Felix’s work at that time and place.

TK: Why not, do you think?

DD: My first encounter with Felix’s art—whenever and wherever it occurred—was bracketed on all sides by personal and political turmoil. While working on Democracy, Julie asked me to step in at the last minute to write an introduction for the book that accompanied the four installations and “town hall meetings” that together comprised Democracy [Brian Wallis, ed., Democracy: A Project by Group Material (Seattle, The Bay Press, 1989)]. Group Material had long since commissioned that essay from Bill, whose condition had deteriorated to such an extent that he couldn’t deliver that assignment. I agreed, albeit with intense misgivings that are apparent—to me—in my choice of a title, “Social Aesthetics,” which I borrowed, and credited in my essay, to Bill, who had coined it as the title of his introduction for Art & Social Change, U.S.A., a prescient group show he organized in 1982 for the Allen Memorial Museum at Oberlin, where Bill was acting director.

To this day, I find it difficult to read what I wrote for Democracy. To me it reads as a desperate attempt to reconcile art criticism and political reportage, to address Group Material’s project within the context of the AIDS crisis. Bill and I had both joined ACT UP/NY during the summer of 1987. We’d already lost friends to AIDS—the first and most lingering shock being the death of our mutual friend, the Puerto Rican-born artist Rene Santos, in 1986. We didn’t even know that Rene was infected, much less that he was contending with so-called full-blown AIDS. Just prior to the opening of Democracy’s fourth and final installation, AIDS and Democracy: A Case Study, Julie asked if I could escort Bill from his apartment on 20th Street to the DIA space down on Wooster Street to see what they had done. She and her cohort had jury-rigged a ramp so I could wheel Bill, who could no longer walk and could barely talk, into the DIA space. When we entered, Bill and I began our tour at the beginning—with the dedication to Bill that the artists had posted on the south wall near the entrance. The sight of that dedication reduced Bill to tears, which then opened the emotional floodgates in the rest of us. To this day, that visit remains among my most painful memories from those terrible years.

I also need to add that when, a few months later, the CAA convention ended in San Francisco, I didn’t return home to New York. Instead, I flew to Minneapolis. Shortly after visiting the Democracy installation that moved him to tears, Bill decided to return to Minneapolis—his hometown—to die in the care of his mother, brother, sister-in-law, and niece. I spent one night in his mom’s overheated house, tossing and turning across the hall from Bill, next to the room where his older brother, Rob, spent the night. The next morning, Bill and I said our good-byes and I flew home to New York. Three weeks later, I heard from Rob that Bill had died. Marcia Tucker (The New Museum’s founding director) and I went to Minneapolis to attend Bill’s funeral. Shortly after returning home, I got a call from Bill’s friend Jeff Weinstein (then art editor at the Village Voice), who asked if I’d be willing to write Bill’s obituary. After publishing what I wrote, Jeff invited me to write art criticism for the Voice. As a result of all of these incidents, I now think that what I’ve considered my first meaningful encounter with Felix’s art is more likely what Freud called a “screen memory”—the tolerable mnemonic residue of painful experiences, the details of which Freud found sufficiently unreliable to require analysis, like dreams.

TK: I can see how that context for those first encounters with Felix’s art could have distorted your memory of them. What about your first meetings with Felix?

DD: Those memories are pretty screwed up too. But one thing I know for sure: I became friends with Felix in a more active way after writing my first review for the Voice, which was also my first essay about Felix’s work—a piece about the billboard he designed to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which appeared on the larger of the two billboards above the Village Cigar store at Seventh Avenue South and Stonewall Place.

After my review appeared, Felix invited me to write the introductory essay for the catalogue that accompanied his 1992 project at Magazin 3 Konsthall, Stockholm. As I began work on the essay I called “The Everyday Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” Felix sent me—or read me (I can’t remember precisely how in those days before e-mail)—a single sentence by Carl Andre. A suitably brick-like condensation of his sculptural method, Andre’s sentence would ultimately, years later, prompt me to address the difference between “affect” and “emotion.” Here’s the Andre sentence: “My sculptures are masses and their subject is matter.” I remember being struck by the total absence of emotion, of even the potential for signification in that formulation. “My subject is matter” is such an elegant, laconic play on the term “subject matter,” but what an airless—and emotionless—formulation! I sketched out a couple of sentences in response, which Felix did not like. Did I mail them? Doubtful. Did I fax them? Or read them over the phone? Possibly.

TK: But not a face-to-face conversation?

DD: A fax machine may have been involved.

TK: I didn’t know friends faxed each other.

DD: Oh yes. Fax machines were quite a popular novelty at the time. One of the sentences I’d drafted noted the formative influence of Andre’s art on Felix’s. The other proposed that, inasmuch as Felix’s minimalist-inspired art had subject matter—sometimes very poignant subject matter—it constituted an implicit critique of minimalism’s obdurate materialism.

TK: Wait, I want to go back. What do you mean when you say that you may have “looked at” but not seen Felix’s work before your 1989 encounter with it in San Francisco?

DD: I mean that one can look at something, but not see it—truly see it. Since so much of art’s meaning is contingent on circumstances particular to the viewer, it makes sense that one has to be ready for meaningful encounters with it. My inability to “see” Felix’s work until I was 3,000 miles away from New York suggests that the context that I’ve been recounting anecdotally was overwhelming. I couldn’t deal with such excesses of affect and emotion.

TK: It’s also interesting to consider why we ever do trust memory.

DD: At the end of the day, our memories are all we have—along with the objects, sights, smells, tastes, and sounds that trigger memories—that connect us with our past. We may know via Freud not to trust our earliest memories—those being the screen memories he found so compelling, yet unreliable on their surface, so to speak. My book looks at art that was created in the arms of the AIDS crisis of the mid-to-late 1980s and early ’90s. And that means it includes discussions of work by artists who died too young to be widely known, and that corresponds with aspects of the mission of Visual AIDS. Is the Archive Project still active?

TK: Yes. As you know, an ad hoc group started by David Hirsh and Frank Moore came together in the summer of ’94 to figure out what could be done to help artists living with HIV/AIDS. It was informed by the feeling that such artists die twice: first, their career ends; then, they die. Since Frank was already involved with Visual AIDS, it soon became one of the organization’s projects and it continues to this day. It’s the largest image archive of work created by artists living with HIV/AIDS, with over 17 thousand images. Last year we started getting all the images online, which has been interesting because it has changed the politics of joining the archive. It’s hard on people, especially women, to know that their HIV status is just a Google search away.

To read the rest of the conversation pick up a copy of Memories Can't Wait at The Bureau, or online.
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres